Freedom of speech and the right to protest

People are screaming “censorship!” today again after a student debate was cancelled. The ridiculously named Oxford Students for Life attempted to stage a debate about abortion, with Telegraph journalist Tim Stanley arguing against and fellow Telegraph journalist Brendan O’Neill arguing for. It didn’t happen after a horde of students threatened to disrupt the debate with (presumably musical rather than gynaecological) “instruments”.

Cue manufactured outrage, with Brendan O’Neill’s article on the topic making the front page of this week’s Spectator. But what’s really going on here? Who has been silenced? Not the well paid journalists, and certainly not Brendan O’Neill who has managed to make a quick buck out of it. Not the Oxford Students for Life, who are now being discussed up and down the country. Not the feminists who protested against the debate, who have also received a media platform from which to air their views.

It is clear that the debate was calculated to offend. That’s what you do when you put Brendan O’Neill on stage, who if you don’t know is a sort of Katie Hopkins for dullards – especially when you invite the notorious misogynist to speak in favour of abortion. They might have wanted the debate to go ahead, but you can bet they wanted people to be making a noise about it. For O’Neill, this is his meat and drink, and he’s managed to churn out another lazy article drawing huge generalised conclusions out of a single incident.

What we’re actually looking at is a well functioning, democratic discourse. Something to be celebrated. Paradoxically however, the only way this discourse is maintained is by everyone running around insisting that important democratic principles have been chucked in the gutter. Let’s assume for a minute that no-one had been offended about anything in this incident. The debate would have happened, listened to by a desultory bunch of spotty Herberts, and it would never have entered the public imagination. A couple of well paid men in suits would have got to play a game for 60 minutes, that’s all. It’s bizarre that O’Neill and the Spectator’s assistant editor Isabel Hardman think that freedom of speech is really that dismal, and disregard everything else that has happened over the past couple of days as just noise. But then, this is by no means the first time that I’ve seen journalists imply that freedom of speech is a thing only to be valued when it comes to the views of professional journalists.

It is very lazy indeed, not to mention potentially dangerous, to equate protest – especially disruptive, effective protest – with state censorship. It leads you down the dangerous path, which governments are quick to encourage, that protest should be silenced. The next step is that the only people who’s views are allowed to enter the public realm are those well paid men in suits, while the noisy, dirty – and yes, sometimes idiotic – masses get their heads bashed in.

If you genuinely believe in freedom of expression, I’m afraid you’re just going to have to tolerate the fact that it works both ways. And sometimes it even inconveniences privileged men.


  1. I find it astonishing you would equate disrupting a free debate with free speech. If by distrupting you meant asking awkward questions of the speakers, or heckling them, that would be fine. But that isn’t what you’re defending – you’re defending students banning an event.

    Likewise the ridiculous notion that if the state censors a debate it’s bad but if a university – yes a university – stops it happening it isn’t a problem.

    It seems like you are inherently opposed to a “couple of well paid men in suits” freely discussing certain issues in a university and have done your best to come up with a justification for the bigots who stopped it.

    By the way, these references to “privileged men” just show how much militant feminism clouds clear thinking. You’re clearly an intelligent writer but buying into what is essentially a conspiracy theory about the patriarchy has muddled your mind on issues like this.

  2. I think you’ll find that men in suits speak freely at universities every day. Equating the cancellation of a debate in a drafty university hall with, for example, what’s going on in Hong Kong right now, is pretty offensive.

    As for the suggestion that Tim Shipman and Brendan O’Neill have somehow been silenced, you clearly live in a fantasy world.

  3. Sorry, I just read your comment again. Are you seriously suggesting that the right to protest does not count as freedom of speech?

  4. I didn’t say anything of the sort. I don’t know where you got that idea.

    Nor did I mention Hong Kong – for what it’s worth, though, trying to use worse stuff happening there to defend curbing free speech in UK universities is pretty low.

    “As for the suggestion that Tim Shipman and Brendan O’Neill have somehow been silenced, you clearly live in a fantasy world.”
    This reads like you’re just repeating student slogans, however idiotic. Someone points to a free debate being stopped on a campus and you say it doesn’t amount to a curb on free speech because the speakers have newspaper columns? There’s no such thing as a curb on free speech unless every outlet for expression in the world is also extinguished?

  5. That student bigots should grow up? I don’t see free speech on university campuses as a problem to be solved.

  6. Why would you take it to mean that, other than a determination to believe I’m advocating something completely different from what I wrote?

    By “grow up” I mean they should let people who disagree with them on controversial issues like abortion hold events like any normal, mature people would – and realise that if people debating political and ethical issues makes you feel uncomfortable that isn’t a reason to stop free discussion.

  7. So what you’re saying is that freedom of speech should only apply to protests as long as they’re polite, quiet and fail to garner any publicity?

    As I say, I’m mystified how you can argue that in a situation where everyone has been able to have their say, where a dismal and dry debate in a university hall has been given a national stage, that freedom of speech has somehow been harmed simply because a couple of people have had to share a platform that they’re accustomed to having all to themselves. I get that there’s this weird Oxbridge thing whereby meetings where two posh people get to fake opinions in front of an audience is regarded as the height of civilisation, but even by those standards it is a weird position to hold.

  8. I really can’t tell if you’re failing to get my point or pretending not to. The point is free expression of ideas is essential to what a campus is, and what a free society is. I don’t think press freedom was abolished by this act – I think free academic enquiry and discussion was, however briefly. I think students who wanted to hear different ideas were denied the opportunity.

    I don’t think you can justify cancelling debate because the mob or the tyranny of the majority/minority didn’t like the points speakers were making. I don’t think this principle should be ignored whether people get endless publicity or none, whether they are polite or rude.

    I’ll bite: It sounds like what you are getting at on the quiet point, but don’t quite want to admit openly, is that you approve of the mob gathering outside public meetings and creating such a noise that it’s impossible for some issues you feel strongly about to be discussed? You think if universities side with the free speech of people who want ideas drowned out rather than expressed – the reverse of what Oxford did by cancelling this debate – they’ve made the right call? But of course this is an embarrassing point of view to admit to holding so you’re pretending your opponents are all opponents of free speech, too, and want to silence people on class or gender grounds. If I am misunderstanding you, then I apologise in advance.

  9. You do realise the debate was cancelled not because organisers worried about a protest but by student unions siding with the protesters?

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